Discussion of Advaita

I feel it would be valuable to remind ourselves of the way in which we should engage in discussions about the posts that are made to the site. For this, I have located several messages to the Advaitin List, dating back to 1994(!) from Ram Chandran and Dr. Sadanananda.

First of all, the dctionary definitions:
saMvAda – speaking together, conversation, colloquy with; assent, concurrence, agreement with

vAda – speech, proposition, discourse, argument, discussion, explanation or exposition (of scriptures etc.); dispute with the aim of reaching the right conclusion, irrespective of who ‘wins’. 

jalpa – talk, speech, discourse; disputation with ‘overbearing and disputed rejoinder’; arguing for the sake of winning, irrespective of who is right. 

vitaNDa – cavil, fallacious controversy, perverse or frivolous argument, criticism; argument purely for the sake of winning the point.  

kutarka – fallacious argument, sophistry

Now for the historical posts. Apologies for any repetition in these, which is bound to be present, since the same points are being made:

Mon, 05 Apr 2004 Ram Chandran

Subject: Re: pUrNamadah pUrNamidam… revisited (April 04 topic)

Namaste:

The beauty of this Shanti Mantra from the Isavasya Upanishad has been well stated by Sri Nair and other participants of this month’s topic. This Shanti mantra spells out the manifested and un-manifested forms of Truth without using names and forms. “This is perfect. That is perfect. Perfection is manifested from the Perfect. When this perfection is taken from the Perfect, the Perfect still remains.” Besides the above literal translation of the verse, we can interchange the equivalent words – perfect, complete and truth appropriately. Two potential translations are provided below to illustrate the depth of the buried truth under the above powerful Shanti Mantra:

Alternate version 1:  “This is Truth. That is Truth. Truth is manifested from the Truth. When any part of Truth is taken from the Truth, Truth still remains!”

Alternate version 2; “Truth is Perfect and Perfect is the Truth. Perfect is the manifestation of the Truth. When Perfect is manifested from the Truth, Truth still remains”

Our mission of life is to become `perfect’ and everyone appreciates the art of perfection. I believe that the art of communicating our ideas without offending someone though difficult is feasible and beneficial. More important, any efforts that we put on this direction can help us to develop the attitude to mutually respect other viewpoints whether we agree or disagree. Perfection in discussions do not imply that we agree on everything someone says or writes. Perfection in the art of communication implies that we should express our disagreements politely and firmly. When we read someone’s viewpoint posted on the list, if it appears with a flaw, there can be three potential possibilities – (1) the expressed viewpoint is erroneous, (2) the expressed viewpoint is valid but our understanding is erroneous, and (3) the expressed viewpoint is valid within a restricted framework of understanding. The art of perfection is to read others’ viewpoints more carefully and less critically!   As a matter of fact, mistakes or stupid ideas do not stay all the time with one person and they have the tendency to move from person to person at every opportune moment!  Intelligent ideas also do not become the sole property of one person. The person who is considered the most intelligent is equally liable to become the most stupid. As seekers of the Truth, we are obligated to take special efforts to get `full’ understanding of the viewpoints expressed by others.

Historically it was a common practice for Vedic scholars (including Shankara) to participate in philosophical debates in the public.  The scholars engaged in meaningful discussions and debates have undergone formal training in `tarka sastra’ (expression of viewpoints with logical coherence and consistency). In all public debates, rights and wrongs are openly exchanged and expressed. The point-counter points and the extent of tarka sastra that went in the analysis have been well documented in the Vedantic literature.  There is nothing unusual in pointing out someone is wrong using logical means where appropriate.  The scholars were fully aware that logic alone can never resolve all the outstanding philosophical issues.

All discussants in forums like the advaitin list should also become familiar with two key terms – kutarka and vitanda.  Here is my understanding of these terms: Kutarka is the technique generally applied by ego centered scholars to use their knowledge and skills of communication to discredit the viewpoints expressed by others. Mostly the kutarkis (those who apply the  kutarka) will not hesitate to change their logic quite often because their only goal is to discredit others. From the Vedic time peirod, discussions are classified by Samvada, Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda. Vitanda is the least preferred and recognized among the above four employed with the sole purpose to defeat the opponent. Those who employ Vitanda do not have any conviction and only purpose of vitanda is to invalidate any established position. It is important for all of us to know the pitfalls of kutarka and vitanda so that we avoid employing those ill- suited techniques for discussions focusing on `Seeking the Truth.’

Hopefully, our understanding of the Isavasya Shanthi Mantra will help us recognize that `perfection’ is our True Divine Nature!

Sat, 23 Aug 2003 Ram Chandran

Samvada: From the Vedic time peirod, discussions are classified by Samvada, Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda. Samvada is the discussion between the teacher and the taught. The Hindu scriptures are written in the form of samvada. Before the teaching starts, the teacher and the disciples invoke the grace of the Lord with prayers such as Om Sahanavavatu, etc., The purpose of such prayers is to remove any hatred feelings between the teacher and the students so that teaching can takes place in a congenial atmosphere. The teacher encourages the student to question, and the questioning is not intended to test the teacher but to clarify student’s understanding (or misunderstanding). The only goal of the teacher is to help the student to reach the highest goal on his/her own. The best example for Samvada is the dialog between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita.

Vada: Vada is the discussion between any two (generally among equals) to establish the truth or to resolve any conflicts. The discussants even though each may believe and have strong conviction to their position, they are ready to keep an open mind during the debate. They both agree to listen and accept the opponents’ version if they are convinced that the other’s interpretation is more correct based on whatever the pramana that they use as the authority. The famous dialogue between Sankaracharya and Mandana Mishra is a great example for vada. The level of honesty of the discussion was exemplified by the fact that Mandana Mishra’s wife Umabharati  (who was believed to be the embodiment of goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati) was chosen as the Judge for the Vada. Interestingly at the end of the debate, she declares that her husband lost the contest. Mandana Misra accepts the verdict and he became Sankaracharya’s disciple.

Jalpa: Jalpa is the discussion between the two who are also convinced that each one is right and the opponent is wrong. Unlike in vada, the purpose is not to discover or establish the truth, but the sole purpose is only to convert the other guy. The outcome of this whole jalpa is lot of noise without any decisive conclusion. Even if it appears that one has lost an argument, he/she will not accept it, instead collects more materials or fabricate other arguments in support of his/her position. Some of the scholarly discussions in electronic discussions groups such as advaitin list (for example, Sri Benjamin’s discussion on madyamika and advaita) belongs to this type. But even in Jalpa, the discussions are still objective, each is strongly convinced that he/she  is right and the other is wrong.

Many vedantic discussions, for example a discussion between scholars of vedantic schools will fall into jalpa.  The highly specialized scholars belonging to each of the vedantic schools (advaita, dwaita and visitadvaita) will never be tired to bring more materials in support of their contentions. They are great masters of Sanskrit and they apply their skills to split the Sanskrit words in the scriptures that bring new interpretations in support for their arguments. In many situations, multiple meanings do exist for important Sanskrit words and the interpreter can appropriately choose the meaning that suits his/her viewpoint. For example, the meaning of the Sanskrit word Dharma can easily fill in several pages and the scholars have plenty of latitude to choose the meaning that fits well in support of their position.  Interestingly, jalpa may not be of use to those who engage in the argument because they are unlikely to change their deep- rooted conviction.  But the bystanders who carefully follow arguments with an open mind usually get most of the benefits.

Vitanda: Vitanda is the fourth and also the least recognized and used among the four.  The sole purpose of vitanda is only to defeat the opponent. In contrast to Jalpa, those who employ Vitanda do not have any conviction and only purpose of the discussion is to invalidate any established position. Those who engage in Vitanda often use `Kutarka – applying irrational logic or twisting the logic.’ There is no leaning experience for the discussant and the bystanders when one engages in vitanda.  In discussions groups such as `advaitin list’ we should not permit any one to engage in vitanda.

Fri, 04 Feb 2005 Ram Chandran

First, let me admire your guts in upholding your viewpoints without willing to relax an iota of what you say! However, I also believe that as advaitins, we should learn to listen to what others say before injecting our understanding again and again.  You have been an active participant in almost all the major monthly discussion topics and almost all of us know your position,  I value your scholarly contributions.  Please note that others who participate in the discussions do cherish their point of view on the basis of their understanding of Shankara Bhagawatpada and other scholarly works on advaita philosophy.  None of us can ever claim to be the sole authority on Shankara Bhagawatpada’s works or commentaries. Each of us have read at the most an iota of Shankara’s theology and commentaries. More importantly, our understanding of Shankara’s theology changes day by day (hopefully in the positive direction). We are responsible for any change in our understanding of Shankara’s works and commentaries (His works and commentaries will always remain the same).

Academic and scholarly discussions on the `precise statements or facts of Shankara’s works and commentaries’ are quite useful but it is only a mean and not an end. Historically speaking, Shankara was asked to defend the `advaita philosophy’ by the scholars of his time and he skillfully articulated his philosophy to the intellectual minds of academic vedic scholars of his time.  His genuine efforts to defend what he believed in later became useful to his faithful followers to understand and appreciate the truth embedded in shruti. Shankara provided substantial documents to please both the academic scholars and ordinary followers. His composition of `Bhjagovindam’ is a true master piece that forcefully insist on the importance of devotion instead of pure scholarship.  Please understand that each of us look for different parts of Bhagavadpada’s works and commentaries and what we look for depends on our spiritual and scholarly outlook.

In all your discussions, you seem to demonstrate that you are looking for `precise words and phrases’ focusing mostly on the scholarly point of view of Shankara’s works and commentaries. Please note that others may not necessarily agree with what you say or declare because they may perceive Shankara’s works and commentaries from a different dimension. I have seen during the past six years of this list’s existence that debates based on `academic and scholarly points of view of advaita philosophy’ always continue without an ending resolution!  In general Vedantic discussions in this list mostly fall into two types – Vada and Jalpa.   The other two vedantic discussions – Samvdad (discussion between the teacher and the student) and Vitanda (aggressive discussion with the sole purpose to defeat others) do not appear in this list.

I believe that the way that you carry the discussions, they fall into Jalpa.  Jalpa is employed by scholars like you who are highly specialized and who are never  tired to bring more materials in support of their contentions. They are great masters of Sanskrit and they apply their skills to split the Sanskrit words in the scriptures that bring new interpretations in support for their arguments. In many situations, multiple meanings do exist for important Sanskrit words and the interpreter can appropriately choose the meaning that suits his/her viewpoint. For example, the meaning of the Sanskrit word Dharma can easily fill in several pages and the scholars have plenty of latitude to choose the meaning that fits well in support of their position.  Interestingly, jalpa may not be of use to those who apply jalpa because they are unlikely to change their deep rooted conviction.

Most of the list members who carefully follow arguments with an open mind usually get most of the benefits of Jalpa category discussions. To a limited extent Jalpa discussions do benefit the list mebers. But discussants who follow  the Jalpa tradition do have the tendency to move toward Vitanda after certain time and we should take all precautions to stop Vitanda. When discussion reach this stage, the list is obligated to stop the thread.

The sole purpose of vitanda is only to defeat the opponent. In contrast to Jalpa, those who employ Vitanda do not have any conviction and only purpose of the discussion is to invalidate any established position. Those who engage in Vitanda often use `Kutarka – applying irrational logic or twisting the logic.’  There is no leaning experience for the discussant and the bystanders when one engages in vitanda. I am glad to see that you are not engaged in Vitanda.  In discussions groups such as `advaitin list’ we will not permit any one to engage in vitanda. Vitanda is a virus or infection that the list will not permit this virus to destruct the minds of youngsters who sincerely want to use this forum in enhancing the spiritual knowledge.

In conclusion, dear ––––, please do not insist on others to agree with everything what you say and declare. I do admire and appreciate your passion and love of Bhagavadpada’s works but at the same time I request you to consider to accept and listen to other viewpoints with an open mind.  This does not mean that you or I should agree  with everyone. We can always express our disagreements politely without insisting on others to agree with everything what we say!

Mon, 28 Nov 1994, Dr. K. Sadananda

This is in response to the discussions that I have been following in this news group.

It is said that discussions are of four types:  Samvada, Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda.

Samvada is the discussion between the teacher and the taught.  All our scriptures are written in the form of samvada.  Before the teaching starts, the teacher and the taught invoke the grace of the Lord, .Om Sahanavavatu… Mavidvishavahai, OM Santi….etc. to make sure there is no hatred between the two so that teaching can takes place.  The student is allowed to question, and the questioning is not intended to test the teacher but to clarify student’s understanding (or misunderstanding).  They are no commandments that “that thou shall do this or that”  but only declarations of  what is required to reach the highest goal.   The Bhagawad Geeta, as it says, is a KrishanArujana Samvada, a dialogue between  Lord Krishna and Arjuna on Brahmavidya.

Vada is the discussion between any two (generally among equals) to establish the truth.  As the English phrase “Let us sit down and discuss”, implies the purpose is to resolve the conflict and to establish what is the truth.  Both parties are open minded, even though they are convinced that they are right,  they are ready to listen and to accept the opponents’ version if they are convinced that other’s interpretation is more correct based on whatever  the pramana that they use as the authority.   The famous dialogue that supposed to have lasted for many days between Sankaracharya and Mandana Mishra is a typical example.   The level of honesty of the discussion was exemplified by the fact that Mandana Mishra’s wife Umabharati who was believed to be the embodiment of goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati, was chosen as the Judge for the Vada.  In the end she declares that her husband lost the contest.   After 18 or so days of discussions, Mandana Misra was convinced to the validity of Sankaracharya’s interpretation of the scriptures that he became his disciple. He was the well know Sureswaracharya who became the head of one of the four Mutts.   Learning takes place at the end of even vada since the truth is established to the satisfaction of both parties.

Jalpa is the discussion between the two who are also convinced that each one is  right and the opponent is wrong.  Unlike in vada,  the purpose is not to discover or establish the truth, but only to convert the other guy. The outcome of this whole jalpa is lot of noise.  Even if it appears that one has lost an argument, he will not accept it,  instead he goes back to get some more materials or concocts some other arguments only to establish he is right and other is wrong.   Some of the scholarly discussions in the news group are of this type.   But even in Jalpa, the discussions are still objective, each is strongly convinced (some times bordering to beliefs) that he is right and the other is wrong. Jalpa arises in vedanta  because of (1) the apparent contradictions ( please note the word apparent) in the scriptures and (2) flexibility of Sanskrit to split the words  in a way that suites the basis of the argumentation  (because the same word in sanskrit can be construed using several Dhatus or roots) (3) multiple meanings for several important words and the interpreter’s preference to choose a particular meaning over the other and (4) contextual meaning that changes with phrase, sentence and the topic.  Typical example is the word Dharma – Any good sanskrit dictionary will give at least 3 to 4 pages of meaning for this two syllable word. Confusion for example could arise since the word Atma has been interpreted to denote Jeeva and sometimes the Brahman.

Just to say that Sri Prabhupada’s or any one else’s is “As it is” and the rest are all interpretations or misinterpretations only borders to fanaticism and does not establish a fact.  Everyone can make the same statement about their interpretation.  That obviously cannot be a basis for argument.   I will come back to this topic of what then is  the pramana or basis for discussion.

Jalpa may not be of use to the two who are arguing, in terms of their learning.  But the bystanders who are carefully following the two arguments can get lot of benefit.    It helps to establish their own convictions provided the arguments are scholarly.

The fourth and the least (recognized) type of discussion is Vitanda.  The sole purpose is only to defeat the opponent.  In contrast to Jalpa, neither one may have any conviction other than to prove that Mr. X is wrong, why because he is Mr. X and not Mr. Y.  The same statement from Mr. Y would be right.  This type of argument has been used as valid means to establish that the opponent is not qualified to discuss the subtleties of the logic. There is no leaning experience out  of this kind of arguments even to the bystanders other than the learning that either or both of them are not worth listening to!

Name calling (those that disagree with their  notions are idiots and rascals and the profanity ) that I have seen during the past couple of weeks in this news net, unfortunately does not fall in any one of these four established discussion types, because our ancestors never imagined that our culture will degrade to that.

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